Fair, good, better: improving the AFL's cost-of-living allowance

With alarming predictability, the AFL’s cost-of-living allowance comes up every couple of months, usually during trade week, just before the season starts, and any time a team with the concession does well. As a Swans supporter with a pretty active twitter account, hardly a week goes by without someone making a sly comment, explicitly or implicitly suggesting we bought our premierships.

So this weekend, when Greg Swann suggested the salary cap concession was inappropriate, the usual cycle of arguments started again. Richard Colless replied with the absurd suggestion that such questioning of the manner in which the League is administered should be a fineable offence.

These conversations are absolutely important to have, and even though I disagree with him, I’m glad Swann raised the issue. As football supporters, we should be engaging in the way the game is administered, because it affects the competition.

Unfortunately, we often conflate a number of issues. We talk only about the existence of the cost-of-living allowance in yes-no terms, rather than taking the time to step back and ask other questions.

1.       In principle, is a cost-of-living allowance fair?

Of course, the first should question should be whether or not it is fair, in a competition designed to be as even as possible, to adjust for cost of living. You can agree with this statement without agreeing with the current model: it is about the in-principle fairness of a cost-of-living allowance. It is something that I believe is absolutely fair.

In a regulated market like the AFL, salaries and recruitment are protected from true market pressures. This is by agreement between the League, the clubs and the players, however much some would like to challenge that. Because of this, football’s employment market can’t naturally adjust for cost-of-living the way other employment markets do- to prevent quality candidates from leaving to go less expensive cities, or to attract them from such cities, more expensive cities pay higher wages. AFL clubs cannot replicate this market. The AFL’s regulation of the market, in the interest of fairness, is what makes the cost-of-living allowance necessary.

It’s important to note that the regulation doesn’t start with the cost-of-living allowance; it starts with the cap existing to begin with.  The cap exists to attempt to make the competition fair. The justification for the regulation is fairness.

So by is a cost-of-living concession in the interest of fairness? Given there is a substantial and proven difference in the cost of living between cities, it is. In the same way the cap exists the make the competition more fair, so too does the cost-of-living concession by preventing clubs in more expensive cities from being at a disadvantage in attracting and retaining players because of the cost of living in those cities. It compensates for the lack of market pressure.

It’s also important to note here that the AFL is by no means alone in doing this. Large corporations with standardized salary schemes adjust for cost of living between cities. Again, this is largely because they are not protected from market pressures, and so must do so in order to attract and retain high-quality employees.

2.       Is the current model for the cost-of-living allowance fair?

This is the more interesting question. If you accept that, in a regulated market, concessions must be made in order to account for the lack of market pressure, designing those concessions to mirror that market as closely as possible, without providing an unfair advantage, is both crucial and difficult.

The current system allows the Sydney clubs a flat additional concession on top of the current salary cap. They are under no obligation regarding how they spend it, nor is it adjusted as the market changes.

Furthermore, other cities that have experiences substantial growth in the cost of living, such as Perth, do not have similar concessions. The ad hoc nature of the concession undermines the valid underlying principle: that adjusting for cost of living is in the interest of fairness. It’s a fair idea, administered in an unfair way.

Rather than accurately replicating the effect of market pressures, the current salary cap is a band-aid, an inadequate solution virtually guaranteed to alienate stakeholders in other clubs.

3.       What is the ideal cost of living concession model?

I’d argue a better model for a cost of living concession in to adopt a competition-wide salary benchmarking program as part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Players should sign contracts with each club based on an equal salary cap- without concession- and then these contracts should be indexed annually to cost of living in the city in which they reside, based on a range of accepted benchmarks.

I understand this is a bit of an odd contractual arrangement- but then, so is the draft and trading. Players would negotiate a guaranteed minimum salary, in the understanding this would be adjusted based on actual market fluctuations.  Players in the cheapest cities in which to reside would getting only their negotiated contract value, which across the club would add up to the standardised salary cap. Players in other cities might get 106%, or 112% or 116% of their negotiated salary, based on the cost of living in the city. These salaries would be paid by the AFL.

In adopting a new approach to the cost of living, you’d ensure everyone, not just the marquee players, is guaranteed to reap the benefit of the concession, and that each club is equally able to access them based on the actual cost-of-living in their city.

I’m sure, though, there are other models that could work. Any ideas?

My life in sport, or how I learnt to think about sport

It took a long time to recognise my love of sport, and longer still to acknowledge it.

The girl on the left won every "event" and refused to share her prizes with the other kids.

The earliest evidence of the author’s life in sport- her 8th birthday cake, an Olympic swimming pool

As it kid, I wasn’t remotely self-conscious about it. I loved Kieren Perkins from the minute I heard him tell his story on an ad during Saturday Morning Disney in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics. I spent my pocket money on posters of him from Book Club. My 8th birthday party was Olympics themed. When he won his second gold, unexpected, from an outside lane, on my 12th birthday, it felt like it was just for me.

I got a bit older, and we moved to the US. As a teenager, my concept of self was pretentious, even for a teen. I discovered a love of history young, and I’d proudly display classic books on my dresser, bought at a “funky” second-hand bookstore and never read. I struggled through Tess of the D’Urbervilles the summer before 9th grade, and would proudly bring it up in conversation, however tangential the connection. I sewed historical costumes and wrote poetry and went to see foreign films. I was a thinker, dammit, and I had the stuffy bedroom to prove it.

But I also had a secret. Behind the clothes in my walk-in wardrobe hung a poster of Alex Rodriguez. Above that sat a box of newspaper clippings: Mariners scores from the local paper, and news of the Australian cricket team, sent by a loyal friend back home. These things were hidden away so they couldn’t encroach on the neat concept of self I’d created.

Some time around the time we returned to Australia in 2000, I started to face the truth. There were momentary slippings of the veil: when I heard the story of Tadhg Kennelly, and or once again watched my favourite cricketer, Michael Bevan, weave his absolute magic with the bat.  But the watershed moment came during the Sydney Olympics. I’d railed against them as a waste of taxpayer money (Where is this celebration of the Arts?! I’d ranted. What if we invested all that money in education?! I’d raved. I’d even calculated the percentage of Australians of the Year who were athletes, written out the list, and posted it on the fridge in disgust). But, sitting at Olympic park, watching on the big screen and screaming as Ian Thorpe came second to Pieter Van Den Hoogenband, I realized this thing that sport made me feel was incredible. It felt honest. I couldn’t deny it anymore.

And so, with a heavy heart at first, I stopped hiding my love of sport in my wardrobe. On reflection, some of my early efforts were quite funny: that summer, I started a collection of letters titled “Letters to arrogant, overpaid athletes, written during moments of psychological weakness.” The old pretentiousness wasn’t going to die easily. The Australian Open got me through surgery that January, and I added a letter to Sebastian Grosjean to the collection after his five-set capitulation to his best friend Arnaud Clement set me back weeks in my recovery.  While studing Hamlet and Rosecrantz and Guildenstern are dead, we were required to write a feature article on one of the themes of the play, offering another example. I wrote about The Ashes as revenge, got the best mark of my high school career, and knew my path was set.

I wasn’t a thinker after all: I was a sport fan. And I was all in for a life in sport.


You can't see it, but I'm actually wearing a dress I made from the French flag. You can, however, see I got the flag wrong in my face-painting. I blame the mirror.

The author with Sebastien Grosjean in 2001, just prior to starting her Sport Studies degree

As soon as I learnt the University of New South Wales has a Sports History program, from a single photocopied pink piece of paper I’d picked up at a University fair, it was the only option. I knew I wouldn’t struggle to get the marks, so I never really considered anything else. I’d go and study Arts/Education, spend a couple of years reading and writing about sport, then do the useful thing and become a teacher. The practicalities were irrelevant, despite the fact it was a 3-hour trip on public transport from home and I couldn’t afford to move out. The first time I stepped foot on the campus was the day I went in to enroll. Sport alone had brought me to UNSW.

A moderately successful first year under my belt, with its sport-free generalist subjects and a year more of fully owning my passion for all things sport, I finally got to enroll in Australian Sport: History and Culture in my first semester of second year. I bought the textbook as soon as I knew what it would be, and had read it cover-to-cover before the first lecture. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t have the lecturer as my tutor, but that would ultimately prove to be more fortuitous than I could have anticipated: the next year, the lecturer would move on, my tutor would remain as the sole sports history teacher at UNSW. He’d become something of a mentor.

I was an enthusiastic student, to say the least. And I made no secret of the fact I loved sport. When I first encountered writers critical of sporting culture generally and of sport administration particularly, my reflex was to defend. Over the course of the semester, I realized I had to approach sport critically in order to be an even passably-decent sports historian. I found some of the writing about gender and sport interesting, and with more than a touch of truth about them. I was still firmly in the camp of optimist, but once seen, it could not be unseen. The seeds were sown, but for the time, I remained a cheerleader.

And it was here I first properly encountered Australian Rules football. I’d been something of a sporting everyman going in to the course- cricket, rugby, tennis and swimming had taken my particular fancy recently, but those were by no means set in stone.  After our study introduced me to the fascinating history of Australian Rules Football, my passing interest in the code, which to that point had mostly been in the career of Tadhg Kennelly, was piqued. I took my younger brother and his friend to see the Swans play the Bombers at the Olympic Stadium. I was bored: it was an uninspiring game. But I went back to Olympic Stadium about two months later, mere days after the rest of my family had moved to China and left me to fend for myself for the first time. When the second-placed Swans lost to the fourth-placed Magpies, I cried without knowing if I was crying for the game or for my family, and my loyalty was won. From now on, it was AFL first.

What I hadn’t anticipated, as a high school student entering university for the first time, was how contentious the study of sport was, how the faculty looked down on it. After external funding dried up in the post-Sydney-Olympics era, the program was being wound down, despite the fact it was a significant moneymaker for a department that always struggled financially. Study abroad students flocked to the courses, bringing with them their high fees, but that fact alone could not save Sport History. In my honours year, the program was gone entirely, and the Law faculty, recognizing an opportunity, introduced a Sport in the Law general education class, and picked up all the Study Abroad cash the History department had decided it would do without.

The academic criticism of sport studies usually focused on the ephemeral nature of sport, and that sport studies wasn’t sufficiently critical. The first criticism is difficult to entertain, given the important place sport has in Australian culture, but there was grain of truth to the second. Some scholars was sports fans first and scholars second. Though far from the majority, these few tarnished the reputation of sport studies. Unfortunately, I was one of them.

My honours thesis was meticulously-researched, a history of interstate attempts to promote Australian Rules football in Sydney before the VFL went national. Meticulously-researched, but suffering from the same lack of criticism and reflection that plagued me throughout my degree. While I continued to play the role of cheerleader, my supervisors, official and defacto, were more than willing to correct me on it, even if I often ignored their advice. My second class, first division was thoroughly deserved, for the work wasn’t what it should have been, even if that pains me now because it limits my future study options. Thesis in hand, I was done, and unsure what was next.


One semester of prac teaching gave me no doubt that the “education” part of my degree was a mistake, so I’d dropped it about eighteen months earlier. Now, I was just a plain ol’ BA (Hons), with a goal and not much idea of how to get there. When people asked what I wanted to do, I told them I wanted Stephen Brassel’s job- he was then the Media ad PR General Manager at the Sydney Swans. In the meantime, I went full-time in my then part-time job as a nanny, tried to write a beginners guide to Australian sport, and tutored in Australian Sport history at UNSW, which the History department has reluctantly re-added after the financial consequences of its snobbery had become apparent. I encouraged my students to apply a critical approach to thinking about sport, but at the same time waxed lyrical about the virtues of our games.

Looking back now, I’m amazed at how confident and enterprising I was in those days. I told everyone about my ambitions, I wrote emails, letters. And it worked: I was amazed at the number of people willing to help me out. I had a chapter in a book selected to be in a book about Collingwood. I wrote a couple of articles for an Irish newspaper. And then, in a series of wonderful coincidences that started when someone spat on me, I got an offer to write part-time for an online sports media outlet. Covering the Sydney Swans.

That was in March. From there, it snowballed. By May, I was writing for another outlet under a pseudonym. By June, I’d applied for a job in the Swans’ Communications and Marketing department and in July, two weeks before my 23rd birthday, I started in what could only be described as my dream job.

At the time, without any kind of stability or the financial wherewithal to survive life as a freelancer, it seemed entirely to take too long to go from part-time writer to full-time employee. On reflection, it was an absurdly short period of time between the moment I turned in my thesis and the day I started at the Swans. I’d been so focused on getting to this place for so long that I didn’t at all stop to think about whether it was the right place for me, or whether I was equipped to handle it, either practically or mentally.

And the truth is that I wasn’t. I realized pretty early I didn’t belong.  Those two concepts of myself I’d long held in opposition to each other, the thinker and the sport fan, were about to clash in their long-overdue battle. But the simple fact was neither of those part of me fit the job. I was required to write articles about the players, and to interview them, and I was still entirely too star-struck to do so effectively. I never fully got over that. But the job also required me to toe the party line, and to put a positive spin on everything. After years of being trained to think through the implications of sport, however much I’d resisted the training, I now found I couldn’t help it.  The gender issues I’d previously thought about briefly became consuming. I worried about wasting my life on something that didn’t matter. I worried I was being taken advantage of by a system to exploits you for your passion. Plus, I felt like a big ol’ nerd in a posse of cool kids. I didn’t belong.

I lasted 15 months. Then I gave up the job I’d dreamed of for years. Around the same time, my heart was broken by a fellow Swans fan. It was all too much. I decided to put football away.

My life in sport was over.


In my last few months at Swans, I’d started reading a lot about American politics, and became slightly obsessed with it. So, fresh in my new, non-sport job, which paid me almost double what I’d been earning for almost half the work and- bonus- made me feel like I was contributing to something greater, I enrolled in an MA in US Studies on a whim.  I spent the year fully immersed in that world and the new friends I’d made through the program. University felt like home: I was encouraged to think through the complexity of issues. In studying politics, no matter how strongly you feel about a particular philosophy, it’s hard to do well if you’re a cheerleader. I was finally able to exercise the academic discipline that eluded me as an undergraduate sport fan.

I followed the Swans loosely still, but it was my sport sabbatical, my time away.  When September and finals rolled around, despite the fact it was the first time since ’03 that the Swans didn’t play in September, I tentatively dipped my toe back in the water. At the end of the year, I went to DC to intern in US Congress for a couple of months, and happily talked footy to no end with the Victorians on the program. While I was there, I wound up giving a talk at Georgetown’s Centre of Australian and New Zealand Studies on Australian sport history. Like going for a first run after a time off, my muscles slowly limbered, and I found my stride again.

In 2010, with newfound perspective and a heart mostly recovered, I returned to sport wholeheartedly. I started attending Swans games again. I worried it would never feel the same as it did in those heady days of 2005, when the thought of missing a match made me sick to my stomach. And the truth is, it never did. I could never be as consumed and naïve and devoted as I was then.

But I wept openly when we won the 2012 premiership, and I knew them I could still love it, it would just be a different love, a more critical love

While at this point, I had fully embraces my return to being a bystander and fan, I DID hide from my previous colleagues as I indulged my inner fan, and desperately hoped the veteran players didn't remember me

The author with Swans midfielder Josh Kennedy on the night of the 2012 Grand Final


Lately, almost five years after my return to civilian life, I’ve started to feel the pull of writing about sport again. It’s different this time, though. It’s filtered through my experiences of sexism and incompetence in sport culture. It’s informed by disillusionment and misplaced allegiances and the perspective you can only really get by being away.

When the Australian Crime Commission report was released last week, with its revelations that doping is rife in Australian sport, the sport fan in me was sad, while the sport academic in me was unsurprised and felt slightly vindicated. It showed, more than anything has before, how essential a critical approach to sport is. It shows why we need sport studies. It shows why we need to encourage a genuinely analytical approach to Australian sporting culture.

I went back to my thesis recently, with the idea to edit it and maybe make it available as an e-book. Re-reading it, I realized it contains a grain of something really important about sport, power and identity, but I didn’t have the distance at the time to see it for what it was, to see how it fit into a broader picture. My concept of myself as a sport fan had become so consuming that I stopped properly thinking about sport. I have this idea now that I might completely re-write it, to turn it into a broader reflection on sport and power and culture. On why sport fans feel the need to prosthelytize, sharing the truth of their chosen code. On how, like most people with power, sports administrators often act to protect and expand their power, at the expense of those who don’t have it. On why political theory might have something to offer our understanding of sport. It’s just an idea, but it’s one that won’t go away.

So maybe my life in sport isn’t over after all.

On footy media…

There are so many things that are great about footy. The game itself is unparalleled: it’s elegant and tough at the same time, and a game can turn in a moment. The atmosphere at games is incredible. And club membership is diverse: looking around at games, there are men and women, children and grandparents, people of all races and from all over the world.  You usually can’t actually see the diversity of sexuality, but it’s there too.

But you’d never guess that from footy media. Footy media is primarily white, straight and male.  It’s focused on the players and coaches.  It spends little time talking about the many people in clubs big and small who make our game great.

This is a particular hobby horse of mine, I admit it. One of the things that first drew me, a native New South Welshman, to the game was the early participation of women.  I read Rob Hess’ chapter on “Women and Australian rules football in colonial Melbourne” and was captivated that women had always been passionate supporters of the game.

I write and talk about this a lot. For example, “Football, Feminism and You” was my attempt to explain why I think diversity in football media is important. Last year I wrote about how Fox Footy ignored Women’s Round, instead labeling the week “Christmas in July”.  Women’s Round is a truly great opportunity to recognize some of those who work off-field for the game yet, beyond an interview with Chelsea Roffey, Fox Footy did nothing to commemorate it.

I believe it does a tremendous disservice to the incredible men and women who give up so much for the game to focus solely on players.

And I’ve tweeted at many journalists about this lack of diversity. I’m not trolling: I genuinely want to bring attention to this issue and talk about it, because I think it’s important. Just yesterday, I tweeted at Backpage Lead that their home page had photos of 27 people, all of them men. To their credit, they replied and admitted that was a problem.

One of the people I’ve tweeted at is Mark Robinson from the Herald Sun. It wasn’t one or twice either- it must be at least a dozen times over the last year, as recently as this week, including my question about Fox Footy ignoring Women’s Round.   So today, when he tweeted:

“people believe its players and coaches who make up footy clubs when in fact it’s people like essendon’s Bruce Heymanson. RIP”

I was, I’ll openly admit, a little frustrated, so replied

@Robbo_heraldsun So I trust you’ll have fewer players and coaches, and more people like him on AFL360 this year…

And then all hell broke loose.  Robinson posted:

@erinrileyau even at a time of death u try to be a smart arse. pull your head in. A great man dies & you want to pick a fight. no class

And then proceeded to retweet every nasty thing that people said in reply.

It’s important to note that Robinson was the one who first used the occasion of Heymanson’s death to make a point. He didn’t just tweet “RIP Bruce Heymanson”. It was he who chose to use the occasion to talk about what people think football clubs are. I simply wanted to call him out on the fact that, as a prominent member of the footy media, he was complicit in that, that he has the power to change it.

Furthermore, I fully expected to be ignored. There was precedent for that as he’d always ignored me in the past.

Rather than engage with the substance of my critique- that by hosting a show that is all about players and coaches, he’s perpetuating the idea that it is they alone that make up footy clubs- Robinson chose to be rude, to call me classless, and then to echo the insults hurtled toward me, many of which suggested I was seeking attention.

I understand why some people may consider the timing of my comment disrespectful, but I can assure you, that’s not the way it was intended. I genuinely want people like Mr Heymanson to receive more attention, to be talked to and about in life as well as death. I want the football media to represent footy for all it is: a diverse, interesting, exciting and passionate world in which men and women spend years working quietly behind the scenes to help make the game great. That was my motivation for my tweet, nothing else.

As for Robinson’s motivation in choosing this, of all my tweets, to retweet? Well, only he can answer that.

And what do you think the chances are, after all the vile things he retweeted today, of him retweeting the link to this?

Sexism in the street

I made a fairly flippant series on comments on Twitter today, after reading Jessica Rowe’s article about racism in Australia, about the comparative frequency of racist vs. sexist comments experienced by people.  Racist comments are, of course, completely appalling.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  But I find it astonishing to hear so much conversation about experiences of racism from strangers, but very little outrage about sexist comments.

I mentioned that it’s a fairly common occurrence for me to have strange men make comments at me while I’m walking down the street. Here’s a couple of recent examples:

  • Jogging round the park at lunch.  A guy says to me: “Great rack!”
  • Walking down the street at work, in work gear, a guy comes up to me and says “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you have the most incredible legs I have ever seen.”
  • Walking home down the street in Newtown at about ten at night. A group of guys is holding a cab. One of their friends is running to catch them, and on his way past me, slaps me on the butt.
  • On Tuesday, walking to trivia in broad daylight in Surry Hills, some guys says “You have great breasts. Come home with me.”

Seriously, it happens all the time. And I know of plenty of my friends who experience it all the time too. After I tweeted these, other women replied with similar experiences, some of them horrific, all of which involved men either making comments (positive AND negative) about women’s bodies, or making sexually gratuitous remarks.

I couldn’t believe the response. Heaps of people replied to my tweets were totally incredulous that I could have experienced it, and experienced it so often. Which made me realise two things:

  1. It only ever happens when I’m alone. My male friends would rarely, if ever, actually witness it.
  2. I am so used to it, I would rarely mention it after it happened

It’s easy to understand why many, men in particular, were astonished to find out this stuff happens all the time. But it does. Sexual harassment isn’t something that happens to some people some times at work. For many of us, it’s something we encounter all the time. What’s more, we’re told if we’re offended by it, that we should either take it as a compliment or alter our own behaviour to stop it happening. Classic victim blaming.

I think it’s great that Australians are having a conversation about the racism people experience in everyday life. But I think we should broaden the conversation and talk about other forms of discrimination and harassment that are part of life in Australia, and to say that none of them are ok.


On twitter, I’ve tweeted a couple of my experiences at the hashtag #sexisminthestreet. I’m ambitiously hoping that others will join me, and maybe we can demonstrate just how common this experience is.

Iowa: what it really means (and what it really doesn't)

There’s a bit of confusion coming out of the contest in Iowa.  Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were separated by only eight of the 122,255 votes cast. The implications of this, however, might not be what you think:

What it doesn’t mean:

  • Rick Santorum is a 50/50 chance to get the nomination.
    He’s not. He did well in Iowa, after a late surge in a socially conservative state that voted for Huckabee in 2008. He’s certainly in a better position than he was two weeks ago, but I still wouldn’t peg his odds at more than 5%
  • Romney is in trouble
    Romney massively outperformed expectations in Iowa. He spent very little time in the state, and it has never formed a big part of his strategy. His team also managed expectations incredibly well, so that an 8-vote win is actually a major victory.  Romney’s campaign is right on track
  • Obama will wipe the floor with either of these guys
    It’s tempting to think  that Obama will be in for an easy time in the fall because of the strangeness of the Republican nominating process, but that’s simply not the case. Once the GOP has its nominee, they’ll unite around the candidate and start attacking Obama. People vote on the economy, and the economy isn’t great. Whether it’s Romney or someone else (the latter unlikely), Obama will be in for a tough run in 2012.

What it means:

  • The run is definitely over for Bachmann, probably for over Perry, and possibly over for Gingrich.
    Iowa might not tell us who did win, but it’s good at telling us who definitely won’t. Candidates who built a campaign for an Iowa-friendly demographic and haven’t done well will likely get out of the race. Plus, New Hampshire is expensive and, without a strong showing in Iowa, these campaigns are likely to struggle to raise cash.
  • Ron Paul can’t win, but won’t quit.
    He’ll stay in it a while, but he can’t win the nomination without winning Iowa. Really, given his antagonistic relationship with the Republican powerbrokers, he was never going to win it anyway, but any chance he had went when he fell 3,796 votes short of the winner.
  • Santorum will get lots of media attention.
    The “Santorum surge” is the story of the week, not Romney’s winning it.  The media need a story to tell, and “Romney’s nomination is all but certain” isn’t going to sell much advertising, so the conflict will be played up over the week. At the same time, Santorum will get the same media vetting that Caine, Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry all endured.
  • Romney will get lots of money
    Strategic donors are smart. They will see the way the nomination contest is going, and start to donate to Romney. And as Romney gets more money, his ultimate success narrative will built, and the whole thing will become a self-reinforcing snowball which will barrel its way to Super Tuesday, when Romney will lock up the nomination.
  • People should have listened to me earlier this week when I recommended bets on Romney at $1.30 to get the nomination
    He’s now paying $1.07

Seven mistakes Aussies make when talking about US Politics

As we turn to the Iowa caucuses, and talking about US politics, there are a few mistakes that it’s easy for Australians to make- and frequently do- when discussing US elections. So here’s my list of seven mistakes Aussies often make when they talk about American politics.

1) They assume American political parties are homogenous

American Political parties truly are big tent- in each party, there are a wide spectrum of beliefs and voting patterns in Congress. Using a conservative-progressive scale, which is oversimplified but has its uses, the most progressive Republicans are more so than the most conservative Democrats. Within parties, there are groups that hold different things to be valuable.  Assuming “Republicans are X” or “Democrats are Y” really underestimates the huge amount of variety in US politics.

And this variety is important because most legislation is bipartisan.  Caucuses arranged around issues are incredibly useful. They allow Congresspeople who represent districts with similar issues to join together.  Rep Sam Farr, for whom I interned in 2010, is the co-chair of the House Ocean Caucus, a bipartisan committee primarily made up of representatives from coastal districts for whom Ocean management issues are important.

Related: Assuming American political parties have party discipline.

2) They don’t realise political philosophy is actually pretty important

Political philosophy plays a far more obvious role in American politics than it does in Australia, yet as Australian observers, it’s easy to focus on policy itself, rather than the philosophical debates that underly it.  Often, the issue for many Republicans isn’t whether something like health care is a good thing, but whether it should be the responsibility of the Federal (rather than State) government.  The boundaries of government, what government exists to do and what it does not, and which government ought to be responsible for things is a far more central and important part of the American political conversation.

By representing the debate as being about whether something is good, rather than whether or not the US Federal Government should be the ones doing it, much of the important nuance in the debate is lost.

3) They assume that foreign policy is important to voters

While as non-Americans, its easy to get caught up in foreign policy issues, the truth is that elections aren’t usually won or lost on the power of foreign policy. The economy matters more. Cultural issues matter more. A small subset of Americans vote on foreign policy, but most don’t. in 2012, it will be the economy that matters most.

4) They overestimate the power of the Presidency

Oh, this is a big one. It’s amazing how often Australians talk about the President as though they operate as the Prime Minister. The role is very different. Separation of powers- which we talk about in the Australian system but don’t really experience in the same way- is key. Congress makes the law- the President does not. Saying “the President will do this” or “Obama should have done that” displays a very naive understanding of what the Presidency actually can and can’t do.

I don’t want to get all primary-source on you, but it’s worth looking at the Constitution at this point. Here are the powers of the Presidency:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

 Compare that to the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Congress is far more powerful, and the President far less, than many understand.

5) They think Evangelical Christians are very influential

Yes, they’re there. Yes, they vote. Yes, they vote in large numbers. But if you want to look at voting blocks that really influence elections, the age and wealth of voters is far more significant. Conservative Christians do not rule the United States with an iron fist, and there are plenty of people in both parties who identify as Christian yet don’t support traditional “culture war” issues.

6) They assume it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys

This is more of a summary of many of the points above, but given the Democrats’ pretty significant popularity in Australia, often there’s a tendency to treat Republicans as the bad guys. In reality, their policy positions are far more varied and nuanced than once might assume, and the vocal, tea party type is just one of many kinds of Republicans. Portraying all Republicans as hard-right, super conservative Evangelicals is lazy, and it doesn’t at all serve to help us understand the US more comprehensively.  It does, however, feed into anti-American stereotypes which abound.

7) They think the US would be better off with a Parliamentary system

People often talk about the problems in the US Political system as though they are fundamental- it’s either the existence of a powerful extreme conservatism or the lack of a parliamentary system that causes most of the problems.  They’re not. The separation of powers, the incredible diversity of US political parties and the centrality and importance of individual rights is part of what has made the US the great modern democracy. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it needs some tweaking. But these are not fundamental problems.

Rather, there are some pretty significant structural issues that have caused a lot of the US’s current political problems.  You could significantly reform the US system not through huge, fundamental system change, but a couple of minor adjustments:

  • National popular vote for the President. Get rid of the electoral college
  • Change the Senate representation rule to reduce the massive disparity. Introduce a tiered system where the largest states get 6 Senators, the mid-sized states get 4 and the small states get 2. That way, you preserve the state-based nature of the Senate, but understand the interests of a citizen of Montana should not be weighted at 66x those of a citizen of California.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Allow the Senate to pass legislation by a simple majority. The supermajority plus the current Senate representation method means that Senators representing just over 14% of the population can prevent something from passing. That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution could have had in mind. Yes, that tyranny of the majority is a real and important thing to consider, but that’s what the Bill of Rights is for.
  • Eliminate anonymous holds on nominations. They’re just undemocratic.

Football, Feminism and You

Earlier today, I mentioned on Twitter that Grantland, a site of which I’m quite fond, had fallen into the habit of primarily using female writers for stories on women’s sport (or, since Grantland also covers pop culture, on pop culture stories)*.  I followed it up by mentioning something I noticed during my trip to Melbourne: the Channel 7 ad for its AFL coverage in 2012 highlights its commentary team. None of them are women.  Someone, whose identity shall remain anonymous, replied to me by direct message and said something to the effect of “I don’t think there needs to be a woman. Shouldn’t it be the best people for the job, not necessarily a woman.”

This is a can of worms I was hoping to get at least a little more than 24 hours into my return-to-sports-writing without opening. You know why? Because it’s boring. I hate it. I hate having to write about it, and I hate feeling compelled to speak about it. I hate using phrases like “institutional sexism” and “heteronormative”. I hate contemplating how much the gender pay gap has cost me. I hate saying these things, because it requires me to think about them, and thinking about them is pretty depressing.  Sometimes, I just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend it’s all ok.

But the thing is, it’s not. Because as long as it’s actually fathomable that of the fourteen best people for a sports commentary job, not a single one is a woman, there’s something wrong.

Feminism is something that’s often misunderstood.  Part is this is because there are as many different understandings of “feminism” as there are feminists.  Part of that is that the media– and yes, I’m bored of blaming the media too– perpetuates an understanding of feminism that’s either really old school or really inaccurate.  I don’t hate men. I don’t want to overthrow the patriarchy and implement a matriarchy. I don’t want to burn my bra– but you know what? Neither did they.

But I am interested in the way that our culture is set up so that it structurally disadvantages women.  This is what I mean when I talk about institutional sexism.  It’s not the sexist nature of any one act, but the sum total of the way groups and organizations act toward women. Or men.  But when you’re talking about sport, the structural sexism is very clearly directed toward women.

This culture certainly exists in Australian sport and Australian sports journalism.  It’s not that women don’t have a place, or that women can’t make it at all.  It’s that the place that does exist is often very restricted (for example, to sideline reports rather the commentary box or to the reception desk or junior management rather than senior management), or that achieving a position is more difficult.  It’s not about the inherent sexism of any one appointment, but at the broad trends that suggest more underlying problems.  It’s the difference between saying “Andrew Ireland should not be the Sydney Swans CEO because a woman should have that job” and saying “Of the 18 AFL clubs, none currently has a female CEO. What’s going on here?”.  At the broad trend level, the notion that no woman could be one of the 18-most-qualified people to run an AFL club has to lead you to start asking what the qualifications are.

And this is where the sexism really lies: it’s in requiring attributes or skills that preclude women from doing the job or justifying the appointment of men over equally-qualified women.  It’s in building systems and cultures that fundamentally prefer a mainstream kind of heterosexual masculinity so that those who fall outside it can never fully participate in it.  There is nothing fundamental about sports administration or sports journalism that requires a straight male brain.  So the question must be asked: why aren’t there women AFL club CEOs? And why does Channel 7’s ad for its 2012 football coverage not feature a single female journalist?

Saying “I don’t believe in affirmative action- equality means the best people for the job get the job” ignores the tremendous structural barriers that exist for women (and non-straight-identifying men, and individuals with other gender identifications). It ignores the fact that social networks (the old school, offline kind) to which women don’t have access still exist. It ignores the fact cronyism is still a massive part of sport and, for the most part, it prefers men to women. It assumes that the best people for the job do get the job. They rarely do. While many people are disadvantaged by this cronyism, women are particularly so. Furthermore, it ignores the way we internalise social norms.  We become participants in a sexist culture because we accept it as inevitable and natural.  The combination of these factors means that far more is in play that “X was better for the job than Y”.

But rather than seriously considering and engaging with the structurally sexist nature of Australian sport, the conversation can often turn either dismissive or to rationalization.  This is by no means restricted to sport- in thinking about this piece, I found some pretty interesting examples of similar stuff from fields as diverse as music criticism and the Open Source software community.  The idea that it is not sexism, but some widespread deficiency in talented and qualified women is both a common comfort and entirely false. Neither music criticism nor open source nor the world of professional sports journalism and administration are a pure meritocracy: all exist with cultures and structures that must be examined and considered in light of their incredibly male-dominated output.

Saying “I’m not sexist” or “I don’t mean this in a sexist way” doesn’t mean you’re not participating in a sexist institution.  To quote from another article on Open Source:

That brings up another point I’ve learned: people who are not consciously sexist themselves tend to be unable to see institutionalized sexism around them. They are not aware of any prejudice against women in themselves, so how could there be any sexism involved? They seem unaware that institutions and customs can be sexist simply by what they value or how they operate, that even something like a discourse developed by men talking to men can institutionalize sexism. Nor do they understand that, by simply accepting such institutions or ways of acting, they become supporters of sexism.

And of course, the very nature of a spectator sport that only men can play professionally is sexist.  But when women are crowded out from the avenues of participation that should, for all apparent reasons, be open to them, we at least owe it to ourselves to ask why. 43.1% of the AFL viewing audience is female. 0% of Channel 7’s advertised 2012 commentary team is. There’s a discrepancy there that, at the very least, warrants examination.

Every time an AFL or NRL club is caught in the middle of a sex scandal, I heave a heavy sigh.  Because, once more, the attention will be focused on young men who did the wrong thing.  The problem, though, is that while that’s indicative of the sexist nature of sport in Australia, it’s merely one part of it. As long as women are restricted to very narrow and specific roles within sport, sport will remain inherently, structurally sexist.  You can’t change a culture from the bottom, you have to change it from the top. Australian sporting culture is inherently, structurally sexist. Even if nobody wants to change that, we should at least recognise it.

*edit* I should have noted, the exception to this is Katie Baker, whose stories on the NHL are a welcome exception to this trend.

More than a game

I’m rather fond of sport. I love the thrill of my team winning, the suspense in the minutes before the siren sounds in a close game.  I love watching a horse I’ve backed thunder down the track and love screaming as it makes its way to the front. I love seeing a player come back from two sets down and a couple of match points against them in the third to win it in five. There is nothing like the feeling of watching your team’s captain lift the premiership cup above their heads, a once-in-several-generations experience.

So I have a suggestion for a significant number of Australian political folk: you need to watch more sport. Because I guarantee you, it can be as thrilling as any electoral victory.  And unlike politics, it actually is a game.

Politics, on the other hand, is not.  Governing is certainly not.  It is grave and serious and important. Unfortunately, our Australian political landscape is dominated on all fronts by political actors who love the thrill of winning, but whose interest wanes when it comes to actually governing.

By emphasizing the game of elections, rather than the challenge of governing effectively, our current party system rewards those who gain power rather than wisdom, insight or understanding.  It has led to our current crop of largely uninspiring political leaders. These childish, playground games turn off sensible, smart people and encourage the small-minded and manipulative.  We are undoubtedly ensuring that the best potential political leaders look elsewhere for rewarding work, and leave us with the game-players.  Instead of competent leaders, we are electing self-interested, power-hungry cowards.

It’s not the fault of the soundbite world.  Too often, politicians blame the media for flaws that are far more fundamental and systemic.  Away from the glare of the cameras, the scheming and machinations are more concerned with who is aligned with whom than what allegiances are based on.  Politicians accuse the media of treating elections like a horserace at the same time they are putting on colours and saddling up, while the party machines place their bets.

Several months ago, on Q&A, Penny Wong, speaking about why there aren’t more conscience votes in the Labor party, said “ I have a view that you join a team, you’re part of the team and that’s the way, you know, we operate.” This is the party system in Australia.  And so our politics is a realm dominated by people who pick a side and stick to it, choosing to spend more time concerned with machinations than with ideology.  Where political positions are determined not be what they think is best, but by what will gain them the most power.  It is politics at its worst- a hollow shell of power games in which a few win, but everyone loses.

We deserve better, and we can certainly do better.

There absolutely should be battles in Australian politics, both within and between parties.  But these battles should be based on the most important questions regarding what will make our cities, our states, our country better. They should be based on substance, not style.

The only way I can see to break the cynical cycle is for more people to join Political parties. Parties need more people who are less interested in winning, and more interested in governing.  People who have a vision for what they think the Government can do, a case for why it’s right, and the courage to stand up for that conviction.  Disagreement is fine.  Sides are fine.  But opposition should stem from genuine differences regarding what the country should look like.

I recently joined a party.  I can promise you, though, I didn’t check my capacity to question at the door, and I most certainly did not join a team.  I will not sit on the sidelines and cheer.  I’ll save that for the weekend, when I watch the footy.

How to fix the American political situation, in one easy step

Are you ready for it?


It’s as simple as that.

Vote in the general election. Vote in the primary election. Vote every time you can.

Maybe there’s an extra step. Maybe you need to register your affiliation with a party or as an independent. That’s easy pretty easy too. If you live in a state with closed primary elections, you’ll want to do that.

But after that, it’s pretty straightforward. Find some time on election day, one day every two years. Make it a priority. Vote.

Are you sick of crazy extremists holding political parties hostage?


Water down their influence. Let Republican senators and congressmen know that if they face a challenge from the hard right in their primary, that you’ll be supporting them. Let them know for every tea party person they piss off, they’ll encourage a moderate.

The Tea Party have the power they do because they vote. They show up. They are disproportionately represented in those who vote in primary elections. So they get to elect their own and, worse still, they get to hold more moderate members hostage with the threat of their power.

But you know what? They’re not that great in number. They really aren’t. Their influence can be diluted.

You just have to vote.


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